The board that keeps an eye on the merit principles that are supposed to guide hiring and promotions in the federal government sharply criticized the Office of Personnel Management in a report released today.

The Merit Systems Protection Board said that OPM's decision to allow agencies to use special temporary appointments to hire more than 12,000 young civil service workers over the last six years "may be inconsistent" with the merit principle that requires "fair and open competition" for jobs.

The merit principles require that hiring and promotion be "determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills after fair and open competition that assures that all receive equal opportunity."

The board said it was impossible to reach conclusions about the quality of the people hired without an exam because there is little agreement on such criteria and because virtually no government-wide information is collected.

But the National Academy of Public Administration said in a statement that "since open competition is not a requirement . . . it is reasonable to fear that {other methods} are not producing the best employes available."

Donald Holum, the assistant director for staffing policy and operations at OPM, said that the use of special temporary hiring authority called Schedule B has produced a quality and representative work force.

The percentages of blacks hired by the government for professional and administrative positions has risen from 2.2 percent in 1976 to 21.8 percent in 1986, according to OPM officials.

"Managers are very happy with the kinds of people we are hiring," Holum said.

Two prominent researchers told this year's annual meeting of the American Political Science Association that while the elimination of a nationwide competitive exam had increased the number of women and minorities brought into the government, other effects were "more problematic."

The government has filled many of its jobs with specialists with narrow technical expertise, Carolyn Ban and Patricia W. Ingraham said. "Such a focus may be essential for such specializations as computer specialist. But it raises a critical question: Who will be the federal managers of the future?"

In its report, the merit board called it "unfortunate" that "relatively little progress has been made" to develop new entry-level tests.

In September 1982, the Reagan administration threw out the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE) that had been used for nearly a decade to hire young college graduates for entry-level positions in the civil service.

The test was dropped after five civil rights groups charged that it was racially discriminatory because only 5 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics who took it passed.

Eleven days before the Carter administration left office, it settled the suit, promising to phase out the PACE and replace it with "job-specific examinations."

The Reagan administration dropped PACE within months of taking office and gave agencies Schedule B authority to hire entry-level employes using their own recruiting and selection procedures.

Six years later, the merit board said, OPM has developed alternative examinations for 16 of 127 occupations. OPM contends that these 16 tests are for jobs representing 60 percent of government hiring.

But according to the merit board, OPM does not have plans to begin developing other tests.

The board also noted that OPM had only about five employes working on test development last year, down from 11 in 1981, before the PACE was eliminated.

Last March, U.S. District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green ordered the government to begin hiring through an open competitive examination within six months. Her decision has been stayed while OPM appeals the ruling on executive-discretion grounds. A decision is expected next year.

"It is a tragedy to me," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who chairs the House civil service subcommittee, "that every day the whole public service sinks deeper and deeper, and we will all pay dearly for it in the future."

"I have't seen one scintilla of movement" by OPM to develop competitive examinations, she said.

Daniel R. Levinson, chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, said, "I think the way Congress established the merit system, it assumed that by following the merit principles the government would obtain the best qualified work force.

"To the extent these positions aren't being filled competitively, the merit system principle is at risk."